On the brink of his latest movie, the currently filming sequel to the Rocky-series spinoff Creed, here’s a tribute to one of Hollywood’s greats.
Adored and elevated, despised and rejected, Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone of the United States of America, has been, in his chequered career an actor, a writer and a director of no small repute.
From being hailed as the ‘Action Star of the Millennium’ to being slammed with the ‘Worst Actor of the Century’ tag, this athletically built Hollywood star so aptly mirrors the American dream of living life to the full, of never giving up how adverse the circumstances, of rising – Phoenix like – from the ashes of ignominy and neglect to bestride the world as Colossus, ever active, ever vibrant.
Born to European parents on July 6, 1946, Sylvester attended Notre-Dame Academy and Lincoln High School in Philadelphia having moved there in early 60s. The long and dismal shadow of parental disharmony and subsequent divorce that fell on the vulnerable years of childhood may have been the reason for the expulsion from no less than 14 schools for antisocial and violent behaviour.
Since that was not yet the era of soft pedalling, or of that widespread psychological counselling that is the hall mark of today, his classmates voted him at age 15 to be the one “most likely to end up in an electric chair” .
But those young boys little realised the strength of character, of integrity and dedication the young Sylvester possessed for he effortlessly outsmarted all those ‘well wishers’ and rose to be one of the most loved figures among folks worldwide. Later, on an athletic scholarship he attended the University of Miami and eventually succeeded in obtaining a B.A. Degree staking his life’s achievements in exchange of “missing credits”.
The world renowned action hero had humble beginnings. He was born in the charity ward in New York Ghetto of Hell’s Kitchen and suffered birth complications caused by forceps which accidentally severed a nerve in his cheek and paralysed the lower left side of his face. But not given to self pity he mastered the speech impairment it caused and by dint of his effort acquired that physique which was to become, post Rambo the envy of every youth round the globe.
To quote his own words “I’m not a genetically superior person. I built my body… I am a manifestation of my own fantasy.”
Claiming to be 5.10 – although the Philadelphia wax figure of Rocky Balboa was 5.7 – Sylvester made an indelible impression with his “deep voice and mumbling”, and became, with the release of Rocky in 1976 an overnight success.
The sensitively portrayed and excellently executed character of Rocky catapulted a near nobody into the Hall of Fame.
Before expanding on the topic I have chosen it would be in the fitness of things to acknowledge with awe and reverence the contribution that Hollywood has made to all cultures and societies across the wide spectrum of taste, time, creed, ethnicity and geographic divide.
As the opening decade of the preceding century – 1910 to be precise, witnessed Hollywood merge with Greater Los Angeles, and a year later heralded the first studio for motion pictures it acquired an undisputed right to be crowned the world leader in entertainment and education.
In a span of a century, Cinema today has come to be the most sought after vehicle to provide mirth and merriment, to hold a mirror to society. Name a genre, a movement, a fad, a cult, a fashion and one finds it deeply entrenched – sometimes overtly, oftentimes graciously hidden behind ingenious subtleties in contemporary cinema.
It would be apt to illustrate from the movies acted, written or directed by this great artist.
It is the monosyllabic, marginalised underdog in Rocky who inter-alia crusades against racism or female subjugation or triumphs over depression brought about by the recession that hit the world in the 70s;the US preoccupation war, the offshoots of was like the abominable condition of the Prisoners of War in the Escape to Victory; the perennial issues of subjugation of woman by the domineering male with his prerogative to err and yet be accepted while treating the woman as a cast away should she deviate from the straight and the narrow as in Staying Alive; the heartlessness of the materialistic society as it showers exclusive privileges on the haves as against the have-nots as seen in Over the Top where a not so affluent father battles against the wife’s rich connections in order to get reconciled to a son alienated by the machinations of the custodians of wealth; the exposure of the prevailing malaise in society embodied in the judicial system as in Judge Dredd; the insignificance of man pitted against the advancement of technology as in the cloning devices projected in Demolition Man or the annihilation of the New Fascist as in Cobra.
The negative image of America, the talk of decline in the country’s value system notwithstanding, the contribution made by Hollywood outshines every other nation’s cinematic field, lending Hollywood the unchallenged, undisputed Number 1 slot in magnitude, in stature, in coverage, in technology.
Hollywood can also add another feather to its cap that of showcasing – in Sylvester movies- violent scenes, murders, crimes in a way that does not jar the sensitive young viewer.
For example, when Rambo guns down people, sheds that first blood, or severs heads the audience applauds for the spoilers of innocence, the perpetrators of barbaric acts, the practitioners of sodomy meet their nemesis and poetic justice triumphs Reverting back to this great connoisseur of the art form, the one and only Sylvester Stallone, let us take a breather before we dwell on the great masterpiece – Rocky 1 or Rambo for that matter and take a quick glance at the no way insignificant treasure trove of writing-directing-acting spree that went on before, after or even in between.
Sylvester’s debut as director Paradise Alley was apparently not to his taste. For, as we was to comment late, the decision was wrested from him by the sheer survival extinct. With a paltry $100 or so dollars in his kitty, it was a tight-rope-walk.
To quote the great master, it was “either do that film or rob someone:. And with his kind of deep set principles the mantle of choice fell on the saner and honourable choice of taking up Paradise Alley.
The year of Rocky 1 release i.e. 1976 was also the year which saw release ofCannon Ball, a subtle and adrenaline pumping artistic film about illegal road race across the continent.
Then in FIST we have a warehouse worker getting embroiled in labour union relation. The TV series as well his films revolve round social themes for Hollywood cinema with its innate maturity and potential is aware of the need to be responsive to the times, to periods of history, to prevailing culture.
Police Story that continued to be telecast between 73 – 78 is a manifestation of this and exhibits somewhat realistic portrayals of police work as does Liberty’s Kids where the TV audience gets educated and informed. Escape to Victory highlights the pitiful mental state and abject physical conditions of POWs [Prisoners of War] in German camps during World War II.
Staying Alive, a tribute to the double-dealing society has the sole distinction of being written and directed by this great master of the art form without exhibiting his histrionic abilities.
Unlike the decade of the 70s – which seemed rife with socio-economic upheavals of a global magnitude, the 80s had turbulence of a different order. Cobra is a film done in 86.
In this Sylvester starred as a Police Officer nicknamed Cobra and to say the least, his performance, like the logo on the car he drives is AWSUM. The film Cobra revolves round this turbulence of the 80s. A seemingly demented gunman who storms in a Shopping Mall unrepentantly goes on a killing spree, holding innocent and weak people hostages.
The gunman refuses to surrender to the bevy of police Personnel who surround the super store.
This gunman is effortlessly killed by a self assured, stress free cop Cobra. A toothpick in his mouth, he is calm personified whether he drinks a can of soda, helps the frightened shoppers, pushes the cop who grudges him victory by accusing gun wielding- act instead of meaningless soft pedalling under the situation.
Before falling prey to Cobra’s gunshot, the demented man mutters about an order of the New-Fascists who have taken upon themselves the task of gunning down the vulnerable segments of society and letting the mighty survive. The gory acts of violence and murder by the New Fascists ultimately pipe down when their leader is impaled by a giant size hook that swings overhead in the industrial workhouse and the leader becomes the fodder for the furnace.
Compared to the Rambo-Rocky delineation which were to spread the fame of Sylvester beyond the shores of America, these many movies are best praised for that ever present spark of acting, directing- writing talent that was to make Sylvester a force to contend with in the Hollywood Cinema.
It would not be out of place to mention that the credit for delivering a hit another than Rocky-Rambo experience goes to Cliffhanger which Sylvester co-authored in 93 and which went to grab eyeballs and acclaim. But it was given to Rocky 1, which Sylvester dubs “my first baby” when questioned as to which icon he would like to be remembered by, to overshadow anything that Sylvester did.
Engrossed in watching the Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner fight, when Sylvester romped back home, there seemed only one thought in his mind- to hammer away at his typewriter a screen play of no small magnitude. And hammered away he did until the nebulous idea in his mind was shaped, perfected and transcript on paper.
In three days flat within 20 straight hours he delivered that final knock out punch to his sagging morale, to his struggling career and life Sylvester apparently knew the rudiments of what makes a film tick.
For he did not make a film on boxing fight but wove into it a profoundly moving love story, making the character of the lead role autobiographically sterling. It is an ode to the do-or-die spirit of an unknown boxer pitted against a reigning champ in which the hero is shown deeply in love with the sister of a friend.
The heroine is a young and recluse girl who manages a store and hides her feminity behind a cloak. Her woman feelings are all suppressed until the hero breaks down her reserve, her shyness and gains access to her heart.
Sylvester was almost an unknown name then for he was like myriad new entrants in Hollywood was almost broke and on top had a wife to support who was expecting their first child. The character story that Sylvester, the writer, wove into the plot, marks out young Rocky as imbued with the finest character, full of innocence, wonder, honesty, integrity, capable of surmounting odds. The character of the heroine is yet another marvel for Adrian appears a muted doll, aching perhaps for a leap into womanhood, but held back by the surroundings, the penniless yet domineering brother Paulie, the loneliness and emptiness of her own life.
The second wave of feminism was making slow but definite inroads then, with Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem ushering in those sweeping advances for women.
The Young Rocky, living a .lonely existence pines to win over this severely shy girl. And succeed he does. His success is the success of the downtrodden, the humble, the weak, showing in mid 70s the fallout of recession in the joblessness of many, the fallout of the Bakke judgement which had handed on a platter as it were the African-American precedence over the less affluent and less powerful White segment.
Having put down the moving story on paper, Sylvester made those numerous rounds to the production houses with the script but as expected made with stony refusals. But perseverance paid and in the course of a year he managed to not only rope in a production house but also got the nod to him being cast in the lead role.
Made on a shoestring budget of $1 million, with his family members made to play small roles like his father sounding the bell signal at rounds’ opening/ closing, his first wife doing still photography, his brother Frank acting as a street crooner the film beat all dismal forecasts and went on to gross $225 million.
And the rest is history.
Rocky’s enthusiastic run up the Philadelphia Museum that epitomised the sense of exhilaration, achievement and accomplishment, making Rocky dance and throw his fingers in the air, released Sylvester, the writer-actor from being a mere hanger-on Rocky was filmed in Los Angeles at a time when movie makers were eying cheaper locales outside Los Angeles or even beyond the continent.
In fact because of choosing Los Angeles the Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was quick to commend just as the City’s Commercial Director praised the Rocky Balboa climb as the best bouquet received by the city since Ben Franklin. Events of unprecedented magnitude were shaping the world around the Rocky script writing.
The superb artist writing the Rocky script takes all these isolated incidents in his wings in one big sweep. We see Rocky Balboa stand puzzled in front of his locker he can’t access and which he finally breaks open only to notice his gear replaced by that of an African-American person.
The audience notices the anguish and pent up anger-cum-frustration on Balboa’s countenance and almost aches to wipe out that stupid smile of confidence from off the face of the young African-American.
Although Balboa vents his hapless anger at Mickey, the incident epitomises the White versus Colour see-saw game with such sensitivity that is almost tragic. Adding fuel to the fire is a scene on the TV which shows Apollo Creed the African-American reigning champ being presented with the key to the City.
Creed’s superfluous, skin-deep interest in the enormous gift and his hollow tones of reverence sound
as if a mockery of the honour and jar upon the sensitive and highly strung nerves of the gathering in that Bar that houses exclusively Whites.
Amidst the entire frustrating scenario, Balboa the supposed avenger, appears as the solitary bank-able hope to reclaim some glory for the Whites.
Balboa is the butt of the joke of Apollo Creed as reflected in his ‘Eye (of the Tiger)-talin Stallion’ allusion. Contrasted with Creed Balboa is simple, honest, committed, that solitary of the down trodden, the underdog. He is encouraged to take the dishonest, the corrupt head on.
The superbly skilled writer that Stallone proves to be he very ingeniously highlights the racial overtones of the day, not only by incidents such as the displacement of the White man’s gear by an African-American, the stand-offish indifference of African-American trainers to the agitated and tense presence of Balboa amidst them but also by such clippings as those of all time great butterfly stylist Cassias Clay, the champ and also an African American.
Rocky epitomises the victory of the weak, the downtrodden.
No wonder the film went on to win Best actor and best original screen play awards. Wen Balboa accepts the invitation to fight Creed he does so with the aim to carve out a respectable place for himself in the society he lives in.
Assisted by a softened Mickey he slogs at the training and by dint of dogged determination decides to be at least a worthy contender for a high flyer like Creed. Knowing full well that he and Creed are not in the same league he nevertheless wants to offer the best defence under the circumstances It is not the ‘win’ he craves but ‘respect’ of society.
Having gained Adrian’s love he is contented as well as swelled up with a new found pride in self
worth. This buoys him up and leads to that final win which the audience achingly wants.
As Balboa wins, Adrian the shy young girl suddenly comes out of her cocoon and decides to prove herself worthy of the great man’s love.